BWW Review: Shaina Taub Shows Off Her Perspective and Power in Joe's Pub Residency
"This is the first time I've ever seen Shaina Taub in anything other than in a play."
This comment, made shortly before Taub (primarily known for her work in the theatre, including TWELFTH NIGHT, AS YOU LIKE IT, and OLD HATS) took the stage to perform original songs, distilled exactly what was so thrilling about the singer/songwriter's show at Joe's Pub on April 28, the latest installment in her year-long residency at the venue.
Opening with the folk-infused "So Comes Love," which takes its lyrics from an E.E. Cummings poem, she displayed a sense of eyes-wide-open hopefulness and bid adieu to "the truthful liars and the false fair friends." Afterward, she launched right into "Holy Old City," a reflective number about the "very straightforward, uncomplicated place" that is Jerusalem.
That juxtaposition was a perfect illustration of Taub's eye for structure. In a show bookended by numbers about letting go---in fact, the title of cummings's poem actually is "let it go"---the bulk of her politically-charged set list explored exactly why that's not entirely possible right now in the world.
Accompanied by Hiroyuki Matsuura on drums and Mike Brun on bass and guitar (both assisting on vocals), Taub continued to make that abundantly clear, particularly with her rendition of a new song called "Where Are The Grown-Ups?" Taub's song was a razor-sharp critique of the current state of the government.
She frequently alternated between her spot at the piano and the mic at the center of the stage, humorously announcing to the crowd each time that she'd be moving from one area of the space to another. As she returned to center stage, this time with her accordion, the crowd seemed a bit hesitant to get on board before the number began, as Taub asked, "How do you tell little kids that the biggest bully won the biggest prize?"
But the song also happened to be an utter blast from top to bottom, from the buoyant, almost vaudevillian beat to the hilariously obnoxious "nyah nyah nyah" Greek chorus provided by Matsuura and Brun, and the crowd couldn't help but be swept up in their current.
That momentum continued as she performed a new song called "She Persisted," for which Kate Ferber (ONE CHILD BORN: THE MUSIC OF Laura Nyro) and Kim Blanck (THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL PASSION) joined her onstage to sing, along with guest rapper Cherrye J. Davis (MANNA HATA: THE WONDER CITY).
As the title indicates, the track referenced Mitch McConnell's much-quoted reaction to the silencing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor. The song was fierce and passionate, shouting out other famous women throughout history, evoking the musical styles of everything from HAMILTON to the Andrews Sisters along the way.
Taub's other special guest of the night, Ato Blankson-Wood (THE TOTAL BENT), took the stage to perform "When," written in response to the Newtown tragedy. Having seen Taub sing the sobering number herself at New York City Center's OFF-CENTER JAMBOREE last year, Blankson-Wood's take at first appeared more understated than hers, and not just because "this is boy keys," as Taub joked to justify her use of sheet music.
Yet his performance quickly began to build and build to an almost claustrophobic intensity. And Blankson-Wood's physicality matched the song's crackling energy, with his whole body swaying dramatically to the sound, only for him to jolt his head back at key moments in his performance.
Throughout the show, Taub proved to have great instincts, including a tangential but entertaining "site-specific concert series," for which she'll perform one song each show by an artist featured on the wall at Joe's.
Making the excellent decision to kick things off with Patti Smith's "People Have the Power," she made an even greater one by taking the opportunity to reunite her college a cappella group, which just so happened to consist of her, Ferber, and Blankson-Wood. The trio's sense of unity matched perfectly with the song itself, with Taub joking that having the pair flanking her on each side felt "like a jet pack."'
The night featured a solid mix of old and new material, from the title track to her most recent album, VISITORS---which saw the return of the accordion---to new songs like "Huddled Masses." Well, "new" may not be entirely accurate. The song does borrow from poet Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus," which includes, most famously, "Give me your tired, your poor..." and the piece fit well within Taub's lyrical exploration of the way the past informs the present.
That exploration was literal in Taub's encore, as she returned to the concept of letting go with an older number in her catalog called "Lighten Up." In stark contrast to the practicality of "So Comes Love," for "Lighten Up" she took the band-on-the-Titanic approach to reacting to a world on fire, sung in a classic showtune style for added irony.
The evening felt more like a concert than a proper cabaret. That's not a slight, though, since the show is part of what's being billed as a "concert residency." But, as the residency evolves, Taub would do well to take even greater advantage of the space she's working in and merge both personas she shared with: the passionate singer-songwriter and the performer capable of mining something as mundane as walking from one part of the stage to another for comedic gold.
Because with such a crystalline perspective---not to mention her incredible pipes---Taub is exactly the kind of performer the cabaret world, and perhaps the world at large, can always use more of.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.